IBM boosts portal collaboration features

IBM Corp. says the latest version of its WebSphere portal will be easier for businesses to install and gives them broader capabilities to collaborate across heterogeneous applications.

Among the updates in WebSphere Portal 5.0 are enhanced search capabilities, a simpler installation process, and an out-of-the box document management feature that lets users share and collaborate on business information such as financial reports and sales documents from within the portal.

IBM said it is increasing the ability for customers to automate interactions among applications so information created during business processes will be shared automatically among relevant applications.

With WebSphere Portal 5.0, users can set up predefined relationships among applications so that information created in a human resources application would be sent automatically to a finance application. Previously, users had to set up connectors for each business process.

Since it entered the market about two years ago, IBM has focused on using its portal to create a workspace for employees to access the information and applications they need from one Web interface.

Last year, IBM introduced a number of enhancements to the portal including collaboration and content-management capabilities, and a feature called Click-to-Action, which lets users specify relationships between applications that are surfaced in the portal through portlets.

In the latest release, IBM refines those features and continues its efforts to make the portal a crucial part of how business is done, analysts say.

“This release is more focused on refinement than introducing a whole lot of new features,” said Laura Ramos, an analyst with Forrester Research.

“Now the WebSphere Portal Server is part of the Lotus organization, and it is aimed at becoming the platform for delivering a lot of the collaboration and human interaction capability that you’re going to see in the Lotus Workplace,” Ramos said. “To do that, IBM had to focus on things like installation, just making it a little bit more streamlined and easier to get all of the different parts installed.”

Patty Stibbs, practice administrator at the Plastic Surgery Center of Hampton Roads in Newport News, Va., has used the WebSphere Portal since January to streamline work within the clinic.

“We found that through the ease of communication that we get through WebSphere we’re able to keep data moving throughout the office without having to reinvent the wheel,” she said.

She said she is looking forward to the ability to create interrelationships among applications in the new release.

“We used to have to log on to everything. We want to look at streamlining things a bit for the various activities going on such as marketing, billing, patient registration and services,” she says. “Everybody has bits and pieces they use, and this will be a good opportunity to bring that together.”

Stibbs also said the document manager feature will make it easier for doctors to collaborate on confidential patient data. “There is lots of opportunity for things to be moved around electronically,” she said.

Features such as those in WebSphere Portal 5.0 are helping to drive the market for portal software, analysts said. However, users still are wrestling with whether to deploy disparate search, content management and collaboration systems, or to look for those capabilities in a single portal.

IBM, which competes with vendors such as BEA Systems Inc., Plumtree Software Inc., SAP AG and Sun Microsystems Inc. in the portal market, is on the right track with its efforts, Ramos said.

“IBM has the application server, the portlet builders, all the way to collaborative capabilities and content management on the other end,” she said. “A lot of vendors are strong in one or the other. IBM provides all this natively.”

WebSphere Portal 5.0 is expected to be available Aug. 21. It is priced starting at US$87,000 per CPU, including a year of maintenance, and runs on Windows, AIX, Solaris, Linux on Intel and Linux on zSeries.

In other WebSphere news, the company is expected to announce a new version of its WebSphere Business Integration Connect software, and a new set of services to go along with the business-to-business integration software.

IBM said WebSphere Business Integration Connect Version 4.2 speeds up the process of getting connected with business partners. The software – available in Express, Advanced and Enterprise editions – is installed on a dedicated server and acts as a hub between the host company and its business partners. The software tracks and monitors the exchanges between partners, and checks that shared documents, processes and software will work across environments.

The software also can track changes across business partners’ networks, systems and processes to keep the shared environments up to date and compatible. The software also lets several business partners connect via a hub, rather than a point-to-point connection that only supports two parties, IBM said.

“One of the problems with integration across partners is that until now there were only isolated connections,” says Stuart McIrvine, program director WebSphere business integration software. “Systems could not support multiple different suppliers or multiple tiers of suppliers.”

The Express version costs less than US$1,000 per connection for partners, and the Advanced version will cost between US$30,000 and US$60,000 per CPU for hub owners, with additional costs for connections. Enterprise customers would pay between US$100,000 and US$200,000 per CPU, with unlimited connections.

Along with the software upgrades expected to be available in the third quarter, IBM added a suite of services, through a partnership with Viacore, to help customers get integration and work together more quickly. Viacore can host the WebSphere software, manage it remotely or help customers roll it out and get started. Pricing for the services have yet to be determined.